Contractors dig into the challenges of building smart cities
At a warehouse in White Marsh, employees of KCI Technologies and contracting subsidiary KCI Communications Infrastructure are building smart cities one light pole at a time.
KCI opened the 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art technology center last year to handle wireless infrastructure installations. Inside the ‘game changing’ facility, workers assemble and install electronic devices on light poles or wooden utility poles to create infrastructure to support wireless communications, including neigh-borhood wifi, low-powered cellular radio and a full range of smart city and intelligent transportation system (ITS) technologies. The new center boosts efficiency and quality control and reduces the time and challenges of completing equipment installation in the field.
The technology center operations “allow for the crews to be more efficient in the field,” said Marty Ayres, Small Cell Mid-Atlantic Practice Leader.
More than a convenience, the technology center is core to meeting growing client needs for small cell infrastructure, ultra-wide band (which requires a higher concentration of antennas), the migration to 5G networks and frequent advances in electronic devices.
“Our customers come by when they have any new equipment and they ask us to mock it up in there to make sure everything fits and works before it is deployed,” said Arch Noha, Vice President and Discipline Manager. “That’s paying off very well for us and our customers because the equipment never stays the same. There are sites that we installed less than two years ago where we are already going back out to upgrade the equipment.”
The pandemic has heightened the need for and installation of wireless communications infrastructure. The federal CARES Act and other government initiatives have expanded broadband and wifi to unserved and underserved areas. But widespread adoption and steady advances in smart technologies is driving the sector.
“We have seen a tremendous amount of growth over the last five years, including doubling the size of the Communications Infrastructure Group, and we anticipate it is going to continue to grow over the next five years,” said Scott Riddle, Senior Vice President and Utilities Market Leader. “Any time you hear references to the Internet of Things, smart cities, autonomous vehicles or any technology that uses connected devices, that is what will drive our business forward.”
At WBCM, about a dozen members of the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Group are building some of those smart city/intelligent transportation systems. Working for the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration, they have built an array of GIS tools and services, including data management systems for SHA assets, such as roads, bridges, guardrails, signs, toll booths, service vehicles, traffic monitoring devices, etc. They have developed spatial analytics applications that enable a user to see what is happening on Maryland roads, such as SHA’s snowplow tracker application, and also identify factors creating road conditions, such as physical conditions that might heighten accident rates or area business operations that cause congestion.
“We collect data and map information so that people can click anywhere on any roadway in the state and get traffic trends and volumes over the past 10 years to help them make decisions, like where should they locate their business to get the desired drive-by traffic,” said Marshall Stevenson, Vice President of Geospatial Operations at WBCM.
Applications that analyze data from cell phone systems are already providing real time information about traffic conditions by tracking how quickly phones in vehicles ping from one tower to the next. The state is using spatial analytics tools to prioritize road projects and determine optimal designs for complex projects, like a P3 highway expansion that blends public roads with private toll lanes.
Now those technologies are tackling the challenges of the autonomous vehicle. Many current automobiles are outfitted with sensors and are already capturing data and government agencies, such as SHA, are amassing data. So WBCM is working on federal projects focused on how to marry data from multiple sources and utilize GIS and object-recognition technologies to create the infrastructure for self-driving cars.
“That will be the next big thing in transportation,” Stevenson said.
That advance will, inevitably, require greatly expanded wireless communications infrastructure and data center sites.